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Surviving Your First Day at the Gym
What to do and what to avoid.

Work the Back

The first time you walk into a gym can be intimidating. There's a lot of strange equipment to use and unwritten rules people seem to be following. If you're starting an exercise program, here are a few things you should do and a couple to avoid.

Your workout starts before you get to the gym. Make sure you've got enough energy by eating something 30 minutes to an hour before you exercise. Skipping a meal won't help you burn more fat. Your body's main source of energy during training is carbohydrates. If you push yourself without any food, the only thing you can count on are weak muscles, dizziness, jitters and the exciting prospect of passing out from low blood sugar.

Choose a meal that's small and easily digestible. A sandwich, fresh vegetables and fruit are all good choices. Avoid anything heavy; you don't want to feel bloated. If you're in a hurry, protein bars or shakes can be good choices too.

When you get to the gym, don't start by stretching. You can pull a muscle stretching if you aren't warmed up. Slowly warm-up by doing some cardio. Walk on a treadmill, ride a bike or use the stair stepper. Give your arms some attention by using an elliptical or recumbent bike with arm pedals. After about 10 minutes, or when you break a slight sweat, you're ready to start moving weights.

Don't copy what others are doing. That's sort of like walking into a pharmacy and saying, "I'll have whatever you gave the last guy." You have no idea what their goals are or even if they're doing the exercises right. Ideally, your first few workouts should be with a professional that can teach proper form and build a routine appropriate for you. If you have budget restrictions, buy a book of exercise descriptions and workout routines. Then bring it with you and use it while you learn how to move your body.

There are a couple of universal no-no's when it comes to proper form. The first is don't lock your joints. Anytime you do exercises like bench presses or squats, you want to avoid straightening your elbows or knees to the point of no return. Locking joints can lead to injuries, especially as you move to heavier weights.

The second thing you want to avoid is swinging. You don't want the momentum to move the weight. You want your muscles to do the work. If you're swinging the weight, it's too heavy.

Speaking of swinging the weight, you should also avoid moving your body to boost the weight. For example, if you're trying to do bicep curls, but you have to push your hips forward to get it started and then lean back to finish up, you're not working your arms. Jerking your body around because the weight is too heavy is simply an invitation to injury.

Finally, don't drop the weights when you're done. It can damage the weights, disrupt the other people working out and puts your toes at risk. Breaking a foot because you couldn't put the weight down properly is a really lame move.

No matter what workout you choose, work more than just the "vanity" muscles. Everyone wants tight abs and firm arms. But you also need to work your legs, shoulders, butt and back. Ignoring the body parts you can't see in a mirror can cause muscular imbalances and injury.

Once you start, don't relax too long between sets. Rest periods can be as short as 10 seconds (if you're doing a Tabata Sequence) up to 2 minutes for serious strength training. But if you're resting longer than 2 minutes, you're probably chatting with other people too much.

Remember to take a rest day so your body can recuperate. When you exercise, you're actually creating small tears in your muscles. It's not until you take a break that the muscles can rebuild themselves. Without appropriate rest periods, you put yourself at higher risk of injury, muscle pain, joint problems and greater vulnerability to infectious diseases.

Follow the rules and you'll dramatically increase your chances of improving your body without injury.

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CAUTION: Check with your doctor before
beginning any diet or exercise program.